The seed

volunteer-stateAuthor’s Note: This is the third chapter of a six part story. If you would like to read the previous chapters, please visit Chapter 1 – The key and Chapter 2 – Plus one.

Gryffin, the loyal golden retriever belonging to Damon, couldn’t help but feel slighted. Now relegated to the makeshift back seat of the pickup truck, he didn’t have nearly as clear a view out the front windshield. Nor did he have the occasional scratch behind the ears from his master.

Nope, the front seat was now occupied by Damon and his new human companion. Jo, a waitress from the plantation house turned diner, joined the trek south towards the Smoky Mountains after the fortuitous revelation of her latest customer’s final destination on the previous evening.

Merging back on to the interstate, Gryffin got comfortable with his new surroundings, head resting on his two front paws. The flurry of chatter coming from the seats ahead of him was evidence of the budding rapport being established between his master and Jo. Damon shared the details of his adventure – as much as he knew anyway. He really wasn’t quite sure what he expected to find at his destination marked by a set of coordinates just off the Appalachian Trail.

Jo reciprocated the conversation by sharing some of the fascinating history in her family – the origins of their plantation from more than a century ago, the story about how her great grandfather fought as an advocate for the abolition of slavery even though it was against the mainstream way of thinking, and how it ultimately compromised his status in the community.

It was pleasant conversation, and perhaps necessary for two people who had known each other for less than sixteen hours. The topics provided a safe haven in which one person could become comfortable with the other, to feel each other out and begin to understand their way of thinking. They might as well do so since they would be spending the next ten hours or so together in a truck en route to the Volunteer State.

After about the first hour on the road, however, the conversation had begun to dry up. The silence was becoming more uncomfortable with every passing mile marker. Jo decided to take a courageous leap into slightly more tumultuous conversational waters.

“So, do you have a significant other in your life?” She attempted to catch herself from spewing this inquiry into the space between them, afraid that it would come off sounding like a pick-up line, but she failed miserably. It was now out there to be answered, even though the intent behind her question had a much different meaning than it may have initially sounded.

If Jo was worried that the question would be interpreted the wrong way, her fears were quickly assuaged when Damon responded with a chuckle, “Yeah, I have someone special in my life. He’s sitting right behind you. It’s always been Gryffin and I for as long as I can remember.”

Jo stared ahead, eagerly anticipating the question she expected would be returned to her. And just as she had given up hope that it would be asked, Damon replied, “How about you? With the significant other thing.”

Jo cracked open this door – on purpose – and now she was committed to pushing it wide open and inviting Damon inside, even if neither he nor Jo were quite ready. She had been desperately searching for an unbiased individual to share her story with, and she finally came to the realization that this may be her best opportunity.

true-friendshipAnd so began the story of Jo and her boyfriend – well, ex-boyfriend now, she presumed. It wasn’t a story that Damon was expecting to unfurl with a question as simple as “How about you?” But, each passing minute and empathetic exchange led the two passengers to become more than simply riding companions. They began to understand that they shared something in common, even if their situations were dramatically different.

Jo’s boyfriend had treated her quite well – initially. But, there had to be something extra going on behind the scenes. Excuses began to pile up when Jo proposed a getaway weekend together. And it probably wasn’t a coincidence, Jo realized, that the frequency of his visits decreased as her monetary contributions to his undisclosed business venture began to approach critical mass. It was a secret he had promised to share with her when the time was right. Apparently, that right time had never arrived. And it never would, for one morning when Jo worked up the courage to confront him at his apartment, she found it empty. She felt exploited, neglected, and abandoned. Jo reached out to several mutual friends. Each swore they were not privy to his business secrets. She had discovered, however, that there were rumors he had moved to precisely the location they were now headed. That was Jo’s personal business and ultimate reason for hitching a ride south – to discover the truth.

Despite the differing circumstances, Damon felt the same emotions inside – abandoned and taken advantage of in his professional endeavors. He didn’t feel it justified to compare the delicacy of these emotions in a relationship to his own situation, but he felt a connection to Jo’s emotions nonetheless.

welcome-to-gatlinburgThere are times when an individual gets into a flow state. Things begin to occur in a sort of surreal manner. Time both seems to stand still and speed by in an incomprehensible manner. That must have been what transpired between Damon and Jo, for they found themselves rolling into the outskirts of town just north of the Smoky Mountain National Park. More than four hours had passed since Jo initiated this conversation. Both were silent now with the same notion occupying their thoughts. Neither was prepared for the abrupt separation that would come to pass if Damon dropped Jo off in town, not after the conversation that had just materialized. The newly fashioned bond between these two riding companions turned friends was undeniable.

The ball was in Jo’s court, and she wasn’t quite ready yet to make a decision. So, she decided to stall.

“How about I help you find your … well, whatever it is you’re looking for,” offered Jo. Part of her was curious. Part of her wasn’t ready to confront the truth about her boyfriend. Perhaps the biggest part of her wasn’t prepared to sever ties with Damon at this point.

“You’re more than welcome to tag along. I really have no idea if and what I’ll find. It might very well be anti-climactic, but I do have a key,” he smiled as he grabbed hold of it and held it up in his left hand.

So, three riders remained in the vehicle, more than just disinterested passengers now. Each of them seemed to have some vested interest in the outcome of the situation in their own peculiar way. As they wound their way up the solitary park thoroughfare, the switchbacks and tight curves had Gryffin sliding to and fro in the back seat.

As their truck arrived at the summit of the pass bordering on the Tennessee and North Carolina state lines, the setting sun provided a stunning backdrop for the vista greeting them. It left them speechless with an awe-inspiring smile reflecting the beaming rendition provided by the landscape itself.

Opening the back door, Gryffin jumped out and began dashing along the path, as if he had the destination coordinates locked in his canine brain. Damon and Jo, for just a brief moment that seemed like forever, forgot about the coordinates. They stared out over the majestic landscape so eloquently painted by Mother Nature, and were held captive by her innate beauty in some unseen metaphysical world. Looking down, Damon and Jo both noticed the plaque that was serendipitously positioned directly in front of them:

Man has created some lovely dwellings – some soul-stirring literature. He has done much to alleviate physical pain. But he has not … created a substitute for a sunset, a grove of pines, the music of the winds, the dank smell of the deep forest, or the shy beauty of a wildflower. ~ Harvey Broome, Naturalist

Damon and Jo looked at each other, smiles still etched on their faces. No words were exchanged. None were needed. They had just shared a moment together. The wet feeling on Damon’s hand brought him back to the physical world. Gryffin was slobbering all over him, anxious to continue, almost understanding that something special was awaiting them.

appalachian-trail-newfound-gapDamon turned the dial on his watch to GPS mode and began to walk towards the trail head that he had seen depicted on his laptop screen less than forty-eight hours ago. It felt like so much more time had elapsed. So much had transpired in such a short period of time.

With the cooler weather and waning sunlight, Damon, Jo, and Gryffin found themselves alone on the mountain crest. The sun was descending below the horizon quickly. They would need to expedite their pursuit to have any chance of discovering whatever it was they were looking for before daylight escaped them.

Damon was assuredly happy that Jo was with him – to take part in whatever was to be discovered, and to help drive back down the mountain in darkness. He began to wonder what would happen when they returned to a lower elevation. Would Jo’s sense of adventure recede? Would she ask to be dropped off in town, never to be seen again?

While contemplating these questions in his own mind, Damon found himself navigating on autopilot to the exact coordinates indicated on the brass key around his neck. He looked at the inscription on the key again, then back at his watch to make sure they matched.

Looking around the area, nothing seemed to be out of place. Everything seemed to be undisturbed, to the human eye at least. Gryffin must have been a bloodhound in a previous life for he started to bark gruffly at a spot right behind the tree where Damon and Jo were standing.

“What’s up boy?” asked Damon.

Gryffin retreated back to his companions, and then turned around to return to his previous spot as if to say follow me. Both Damon and Jo picked up on the cue. At the base of the tree were a collection of leaves that had been displaced by Gryffin’s investigative efforts. What laid beneath those leaves was a large burrow. If anyone else had revealed this burrow, one would have thought it was the home of a wild critter. Everyone in its presence now suspected otherwise.

smoky-mountain-treeGetting down on his hands and knees, Damon reached his hand and arm – slowly – into the hole up to his elbow. “I feel something,” he said with a tinge of excitement in his voice. Pulling his arm back out brought with it a small container. It looked like an antique jewelry case. And on the front panel was a keyhole that looked to be just the right size.

He quickly, but carefully took the key around his neck and inserted it into the keyhole. Jo squatted down next to Damon, peering over his shoulder in anticipation. As he turned the key and opened the lid, he wasn’t sure what he would find. But, what he did find surprised him nonetheless.

Sitting in the box was an acorn and a rolled up parchment. Unrolling the leathery material, slightly yellowed with age, he found the following quote transcribed in beautiful penmanship:

Man is wise and constantly in quest of more wisdom; but the ultimate wisdom, which deals with beginnings, remains locked in a seed. There it lies, the simplest fact of the universe and at the same time the one which calls forth faith rather than reason. ~ Hal Borland

new-beginningsBelow the quote were three numbers. Two of them didn’t need decoding. The exact location denoted by the new set of coordinates was unknown, but Damon did know he would be next heading somewhere north and east of his present location. The third number was more mysterious and required mental contemplation. Damon was, however, becoming less concerned with the meaning of the number and more concerned with whether he would have a kindred spirit accompanying him on the next leg of his journey. Straddling the Tennessee/North Carolina state line, he was simultaneously straddling a state of mind. As he massaged the acorn between his fingertips, Damon reminded himself that new beginnings do indeed require faith. The metaphorical seed had been planted – the nurturing process had begun.

Author’s Note: This is the third part of a six part “not-so-short” short story about self-discovery. A new segment will be published each Wednesday in December with the closing chapter being posted on the first Wednesday of 2015. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment – best wishes for an inspired day and new year!

Plus one

newfound-gap

Author’s Note: This is the second chapter of a six part story. If you would like to read the first chapter, please visit The key.

The numbers inscribed on the brass key filtered through Damon’s consciousness. As the initial adrenaline rush of the discovery diminished in magnitude, the gears began to turn in the dormant recesses of his mind. Initially searching for a pattern in the numbers that simply wasn’t there, he stumbled upon an idea. Racing back to his laptop sitting on the bed, his loyal golden retriever, Gryffin, was following closely behind.

Lifting the lid and opening a browser window, Damon typed furiously into the search engine box. Upon submitting his request, the results staring back at him confirmed that his suspicion was indeed correct. The map shown on the screen after typing in the numbers on the key – 35.6109, -83.4250 – displayed latitude and longitude coordinates. It pointed to a location just off the Appalachian Trail, a sixteen hour drive from his present location.

High in the Smoky Mountains on the North Carolina/Tennessee border resides a scenic overlook named Newfound Gap. Its name – Damon was researching – had originated from the newly found pass through the mountains in the year 1872. Even though more than a century had elapsed since this discovery, Damon felt as though this site held at least one more discovery waiting to be revealed.

As he rotated the key through his fingers, Damon came to a metaphorical fork in the road – remain on the safe path towards another record quarter of revenues in his admittedly unfulfilling position, or throw caution to the wind and embark upon a quest filled with uncertainty. Damon knew what he should do – he should stay exactly where he was and keep on the well-paved path. Whether it was the curiosity of his awoken mind, the feel of the cold brass against his skin, or the animated actions of his canine friend, the endorphins began to flow freely. Cutting a piece of the wet twine that was previously clogged in the drain, Damon looped the key on to it like a necklace and hung it around his neck.

Gryffin could sense what this meant. Whether it was his canine sixth sense, or simply a recognition of the aura emanating from his master, he began to wag his tail vigorously and jump upon Damon in anticipation. Truth be told, Damon felt the same way inside. He just wasn’t quite ready to release that excitement outside of his protective shell yet.

The first night in his new home left Damon sleepless. The drafty crevices exposing the cold exterior, the dripping sink, and the wind blowing untrimmed branches against the windows kept him awake for most of the night. His second night would also be sleepless, but for a different reason – anticipation. If he thought that a twenty-four hour period could change his perspective so abruptly, Damon wouldn’t have believed it. With plans to leave at daybreak and break up the sixteen hour journey over two days, he didn’t bother with any more than a cursory email to his boss requesting an undisclosed number of vacation days to take care of some personal business.

With the sun rising in the east, Gryffin darted out of the house, waiting by the pickup truck while Damon locked the front door. It was a crisp, fall morning – a perfect day for a road trip – similar to the ones that Damon recalled from his college days. Somewhere along the way since those carefree days, he had adopted a more conservative attitude towards life. Even this slight departure from the norm, taking the metaphorical road less traveled on this particular morning, left Damon filled with a healthy dose of euphoria that would carry him two hours farther on his journey than he expected on the first day.

virginia-welcomes-youWith daylight fading and his night blindness providing a high degree of anxiety towards attempting to drive after sunset, Damon exited the interstate and found himself on a county road running through rural Virginia. The road signs had indicated dining and lodging options available off this exit. He wasn’t buying it. After about a three mile drive down the road, Damon was ready to turn the truck around, return to the interstate, and try again one exit to the south. It was just then he saw a light on the side of the road up ahead. He muttered to Gryffin next to him, as if looking for validation, “We’ll turn around up there if we don’t find anything, okay buddy?”

The building coming into view resembled a diner. There was another structure behind it, a bit taller, that could pass for some sort of lodging option – in a horror movie, maybe. The venti sized cup of coffee he had consumed since his last pit stop was beckoning for attention. Talking to himself and not Gryffin this time, Damon offered up, “Well, at least I can see if they have a restroom.”

Walking through the front door of the establishment, Damon was surprised. The old adage – don’t judge a book by its cover – was certainly appropriate here. It wasn’t a highly sophisticated diner, but it was clean and had quite a few eclectic decorations scattered around the restaurant.

“Hi darling,” came a voice from behind the counter, “take a seat wherever you like.” The waitress offered up a greeting as if it was perfectly normal for guests to be coming through the front door. Based upon Damon’s experience, he was wondering how anyone ever found this place. Glancing at his truck parked outside, Gryffin was seated in the driver’s position, keeping watch through the windshield. With a cool breeze blowing through the rolled down windows, he would have been happy to remain parked there the entire night.

diner-boothDamon took a seat in the booth closest to the door, just in case he found the need to depart quickly. He’d seen enough movies to know how plots unfold on desolate rural roads. Approaching from behind the counter, ponytail bobbing back and forth, the waitress introduced herself with a smile, “Name is Jo, can I get you something to drink while you look over the menu?”

Damon replied, still uncertain as to the peculiar surroundings, “Um, how about a lemonade … and, um, do you have a restroom I can use?”

“Sure,” Jo replied, “just around the right side of the counter there, second door on the right.” His gait coming back from the bathroom was more relaxed, due to the relief in bladder pressure as well as his increasing acceptance of this odd location, seemingly in the middle of nowhere.

Sitting back down in the booth, Damon realized that his lemonade had already been delivered. As he perused the menu, he decided that he would just order a burger. That should be safe, he thought. As Jo returned, she inquired, “Ready, honey?”

“Yeah, I’ll have a burger, well done please, and an order of fries,” replied Damon.

“Lettuce, tomato, and onion?” asked Jo. “Yes on the lettuce and tomato, no on the onion,” retorted Damon. This was all pleasant, cordial, non-confrontational, and expected communication between waitress and customer.

Damon ventured a little beyond the expected into the unexpected, as much out of curiosity as it was to make sure his hamburger was going to be ground beef and not some variant of back-country squirrel. “So, what is this place? I mean, I know it’s a diner, but it doesn’t seem like it’s really along the main drag if you know what I mean.”

Jo’s shoulders drooped just a bit, a sort of resignation to her position here. “This place used to be a plantation long, long ago. It’s been in my family for generations. My great grandfather converted it into a diner and motel about forty years ago. My sister and I have kept it running for the past ten years. It’s not really on the map, per se, but it’s well known by a lot of the truckers that come through this area. All the artifacts you see laying around are from the original plantation.”

Damon was fascinated and now felt more comfortable about the safety of his burger. It was then that Jo responded with a question that would trigger an acceleration of his heartbeat.

“So, what’s the key around your neck?” asked Jo.

As if by protective instinct, Damon reached down and grasped the key to make sure that it was still, in fact, there. He rubbed it between his fingers before replying. The funny thing about Damon, he was never very forthcoming with people close to him. However, put him in a conversation with a complete stranger and he was ready to bare his soul. Perhaps it was the lack of scrutiny from a stranger’s eye that permitted him to be so open with his communication. Or, maybe it was Jo’s charming and homey personality that led Damon into a detailed account of the previous twenty-four hours.

“It’s funny you should ask that,” began Damon. The hamburger he ordered didn’t arrive until much later. As he began to tell his story – and that was something he was really good at – the words and emotions began to flow effortlessly. When he finished his tale and returned from the fantastical land of adventure in his mind, Damon gazed across the table. Jo, now seated in the booth directly across from him, was utterly captivated by his words.

entrance-sign-smoky-mountains“Really,” inquired Jo, “you are headed to the Smoky Mountains?”

Damon hadn’t even realized he had told the entire story. It was like some surreal experience recalling the events of the past day. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s where I am supposed to end up. I have no idea what, if anything, is waiting for me there.”

Jo, somewhat sheepishly, replied, “I know you’re gonna say these are coincidences that only happen in the perfectly plotted movie or novel, but this is the honest truth. I don’t own a car. I have been trying to find some way to get down to that area for the past six months.”

“Oh yeah, what for?” asked Damon.

Taking a moment to gather her thoughts – and composure – Jo responded, “Let’s just say it’s some personal business I need to take care of.” Damon could tell she would not provide any further information, so he let it rest.

Something inside tugged at Damon. And even though he didn’t formulate the words in his own consciousness, they nonetheless emerged from his mouth, “I have an extra seat in my truck if you don’t mind dogs.”

The response from Jo came quicker than either she or Damon expected, “I love dogs.”

friendship-horizonsAnd so it came to be, Damon without overtly asking, and Jo without explicitly answering, that the pickup truck continuing its journey south the next morning would carry Damon and Gryffin – plus one more – each with their own agenda, even if they didn’t yet realize that their intentions were all one and the same.

Author’s Note: This is the second part of a six part “not-so-short” short story about self-discovery. A new segment will be published each Wednesday in December with the closing chapter being posted on the first Wednesday of 2015. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment – best wishes for an inspired day and new year!

Mountain magic

mountains-portraitMan has created some lovely dwellings – some soul stirring literature. He has done much to alleviate physical pain. But, he has not created a substitute for a sunset, a grove of pines, the music of the winds, the dank smell of the deep forest, or the shy beauty of a wildflower. ~Henry Broome, Posted at Newfound Gap in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

What do a faulty master brake cylinder and a mountain vacation have in common? Unfortunately, too much in our case. After a car repair bill just south of $1000 and a two day delay in our departure date, the utopian edition of our trip to the Smoky Mountains did not begin as envisioned. However, we are a resilient clan. Stubborn determination runs deep through my blood. This was one time where I could channel that character trait towards a worthy cause.

We packed up the car that had been figuratively duct taped together and headed for the hills, literally. 685 miles and 11 hours later, we coasted into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. With temperatures hovering around 70 degrees and relative humidity near zero, any leftover feelings of anxiety or stress were expelled from our system like the exhaust from a car. Poof. Gone. Vaporized. It’s amazing how nature can provide instant relief like that.

Before the whole debacle surrounding our departure, I remember hearing a story about recent additions to the Oxford dictionary. The new word that piqued my interest, digital detox. Used to describe those times where you unplug from all electronic devices, it is a scary endeavor to consider for many individuals into today’s world. I was up for the challenge.

For eight days, I carried only a cell phone in my pocket. Not a single phone call was made. Not even one e-mail was read or responded to. The only liberty I provided to myself was the ability to use that phone as a camera to chronicle our adventure. The entire experience was soothing, rejuvenating, and peaceful. In one word, it was holistic. It reminded me that stepping into ways of the past may be the way of the future.

Travel is the dominion of the muse. You are out of your comfort zone, in unfamiliar territory, so you are particularly receptive to new input. ~Laura Oliver

wildflowersWith natural beauty pouring into our being from every direction, all our senses were fully engaged. It’s as if the mountains provided us with a magical 6th sense that penetrates the soul and provides a portal to a new dimension. It speaks through the smell of the fir trees, the chirping of the chickadees, the sight of butterflies frolicking from one brilliant bloom to the next. If there is a non-verbal definition for pure bliss, this is it. It needs to be felt, experienced, and fully absorbed in order to appreciate the influence it has over your sense of completeness.

sunset-moonBefore embarking upon this pilgrimage, I had seen a reasonable amount of wildlife in their natural habitat. After watching an absolutely breathtaking sunset unfold before our eyes at Clingmans Dome, we were “clinging” to every last drop of beauty the sunlight painted across the evening sky. Not to be left out, the crescent moon even made an appearance to dance with the sun during the waning moments of its performance (if you enlarge the picture, you are able to see it). Our senses were numb from over-stimulation. The numbness may have been enhanced by the 45 degree wind chills 😉

As we made our way out of the parking lot, the quickly fading sun provided us with the perfect nightcap. Silhouettes that could not be mistaken, a mama black bear with her cub served as gatekeepers to the exit. As the cub playfully scampered across the road, the unabashed smiles across our faces followed. It is a vision and a memory that I will never forget. There is something sacred about seeing an animal in the wild.

In the days that followed, we were blessed with other wildlife sightings: a wolf, a fox, and an entire herd of elk migrating across an open field at dusk. Only one word could come close to describing it. Magical.

Speaking of migration, we felt as though we were members of a migrating herd ourselves. Over the course of 8 days, we hiked over 23 miles on trails throughout the national park. Although 23 miles is not an earth-shattering accomplishment, for us flat-landers from Florida, the 23 miles in the horizontal direction coupled with the 2 miles in vertical elevation hiked imparted a feeling of supreme triumph even if our “well-used” legs did not share in the same level of exuberance 😉

rainbow-fallsAs we begrudgingly prepared to complete our annual pilgrimage, the final day included a trek to the summit of Rainbow Falls. Having a natural affinity for waterfalls and being the tallest in the Smoky Mountains, it was one destination on my must see list. After a 2.7 mile hike up 1700 feet, the journey’s end did not disappoint.

Faith is not being sure where you’re going but going anyway. ~Frederick Buechner

There is something therapeutic about the inertia of moving water as it falls over a ledge. It reminds me to have faith and always keep moving. A new type of rainbow connection was made on that day, a connection that stretches across the miles between my physical home in Florida and my spiritual home in the mountains.

Mother Nature provided us with a special connection over these precious days. Our return to civilization has been accompanied by a renewed sense of inner peace and calmness. Perhaps, it’s because we know those memories are waiting at the other end of our own personal rainbow. A pot of gold to be sure.

May the warm winds of heaven blow softly upon your house. May the Great Spirit bless all who enter there. May your moccasins make happy tracks in many snows, and may the rainbow always touch your shoulder. ~Cherokee Blessing

sunset